Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Pierre Pinoncelli, Marcel Duchamp, "READYMADE REMADE" by Leland de la Durantaye


by Leland de la Durantaye

A man walks into a room. He is elderly. The room
is white. He pauses for a moment, glances around,
moves towards the far wall. He begins to relieve
himself in a urinal. A few hours later, the
sixty-four-year-old retired seed merchant Pierre
Pinoncelli is arraigned on charges of vandalizing
a work of art valued at more than three million

The story of the seed merchant's arrest began
more than seventy years earlier. On a spring day
in 1917, the twenty-nine-year-old French artist
Marcel Duchamp left his studio on West 67th
Street on a peculiar errand. Accompanied by art
collector Walter Arensberg and artist Joseph
Stella, Duchamp went to the J. L. Mott Iron Works
at 118 Fifth Avenue in New York City, made a few
polite inquiries, and then asked for a single
white porcelain urinal. Duchamp then took his new
purchase back to his studio to begin work.

There was nothing strange in an artist personally
selecting his raw materials. Michelangelo was
famous for spending long hours in the legendary
marble quarries of Carrara-. It was recounted
that he could feel a tremor of future form in the
rough-hewn blocks. Once the marble was quarried
and carted back to his studio in Florence, Rome,
or wherever else he happened to be working, he
would spend still more time examining the stone,
watching and waiting before at last taking up
hammer and chisel. Once begun, his work was long,
hard, and physically exhausting-one of the
reasons that Leonardo da Vinci looked down upon
it, dismissing sculptors as being much like
workmen, and rating their manual labor
considerably lower than the more intellectual
cosa mentale that was, for him, painting.
Michelangelo cared nothing for such distinctions,
and over the course of thousands of hours of
arduous work, covered from head to foot in marble
dust, he feverishly sought to liberate his vision
from the rough stone until what remained before
him was a work such as his Pietà, the Redeemer
and the Mother who immaculately conceived him,
who loved him and lost him, the world's sorrows
concentrated into a crushing burden which she
held with sunken head and outstretched arms-and
which a vandal would one day attack with a hammer
in St. Peter's.1

Half a world and a half-millennium away, the
young Duchamp proceeded differently. He may have
looked long and hard at the matter before him,
may have listened with passionate intensity to
the white porcelain, wondering how to make it
live, how to hold a mirror up to nature and
culture, how to make it speak to its age, how to
tell the truth of its strange times. But whatever
the nature and extent of his deliberations, his
physical activity was minimal. The urinal that
emerged from Duchamp's studio was much the same
one that had entered it. The slight but crucial
difference lay in the special signature it bore
on its side: "R. Mutt 1917." The rough pseudonym
Duchamp chose was also a suggestive one. Mutt was
only a letter away from the name of the initial
producer of the object, Mott.2 Being a work with
a less-than-exalted artistic pedigree, Duchamp
found appealing the name's mongrel associations,
ones particularly alive to him through his
reading of "Mutt and Jeff" comic strips, as well
as from one of dogs' favorite activities:
urinating (to mark their territory). These
low-cultural notes were accompanied by a
high-culture critique. When heard with ears
trained in the language with the most lofty
tradition of aesthetic reflection-German-"R.
Mutt" sounds less like a name and more like an
indictment. When spoken aloud, it sounds exactly
like Armut, German for "poverty." Perhaps
Duchamp's "R. Mutt" wanted to remind spectators
of the poverty that surrounds us, and alongside
of which art might seem like a craven escape. Or
perhaps the poverty was of a less literal sort: a
poverty of imagination and invention, a poverty
of possibility for today's artists with the
Leonardos and Michelangelos of the past crowding
the horizon, filling minds and museums, and
making all later work seem poor in their blinding
light. When later asked, Duchamp laconically
replied that R. stood for "Richard," which could
have meant a great deal-richard is French slang
for a wealthy man-or nothing at all.

There was, however, a further element to the game
of the name-and a more practical one. Not only
did Duchamp not want to sign his own name, but he
could not. The urinal he had purchased was
destined for the immense 1917 Independents art
show to be held in the Grand Central Palace and
funded by a host of wealthy New York patrons
(including Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Mrs. Harry
Payne Whitney, and Archer M. Huntington). It was
to be the largest exhibition ever held in America
and would present 2,125 works of art by 1,200
artists. It was to stretch over nearly two miles
and was double the size of the legendary 1913
Armory show where Duchamp had attracted so much
interest with his Nude Descending a Staircase. It
was announced that every artist was welcome to
exhibit at the Independents show so long as the
entrance fee ($6) was paid. Buoyed by his recent
success, the young Duchamp was on the show's
board of directors, and it was widely rumored
that he would submit a Cubist painting, a
successor to the work that garnered so much
interest at the Armory show, to be titled Tulip
Hysteria Coordinating. This work never arrived.

Two days before the scheduled opening, R. Mutt's
urinal was quietly delivered to the Grand Central
Palace with the required membership fee and a
title: Fountain. Put to this extreme test, the
Independents' board of directors refused it. The
ground given was that it was, in the words of the
president of the board, "by no definition, a work
of art." Duchamp immediately resigned in protest.

Shortly after the show opened, Mutt's Fountain
was discovered in a corner of the Palace (no
return address had been given for the work). It
was unceremoniously removed and soon found its
way to a prominent New York gallery where Alfred
Steiglitz took a photograph of it that would soon
make its way around the world. Duchamp was
revealed to be the real R. Mutt, and the
surrounding scandal brought the young artist
still more fame. He had taken the viewer out of
the traditional museum space and led him next
door (to the restroom). Duchamp became a hero for
his generation of artists, and an icon for those
to follow. From its lowly standing point,
Duchamp's readymade urinal asked difficult
questions about how context affected content,
about how the art of the present should relate to
the art of the past, about humor and seriousness,
about the relation of creation to criticism, and
about the nature of artistic artifice. As every
philosophically minded art lover from Plato to
the present has remarked, works of art are
things, but they are not things like other things
in our world. A painting is not like a person
even when it is of a person; and a sculpture is
not like a chair, even when the sculpture is a
chair. Kant noted that art was a purposeful
activity but that it had no definable purpose;
for works of high art, this purposelessness was
like the natural world, and great works of art
seemed so integral and complex that they almost
ceased to seem made, their artifice disappearing
into their art. Duchamp stood at a crossroads of
artifice. The movement had begun in the previous
century when the subtle mastery of Ingres and the
salon artists had ceded to the wild works of such
figures as Gauguin and Van Gogh. Whereas the
salon painters of the mid-nineteenth century
employed brushes made of sable fur because they
left finer traces of their passage, painters at
the end of the century no longer strove to
conceal such artifice, no longer covering the
tracks of brushstrokes and going so far as to use
tools as rough as Van Gogh's palette knife.

Duchamp's work was a quantum leap forward in this
radical lineage. By the time of his death in
1968, his readymade urinal was the century's most
famous piece of free-standing art and had been
exhibited around the globe. It had changed the
way that people thought about the cloistered
space and unspoken rules of the museum, as well
as about ideas of disinterested appreciation and
aesthetic judgment. It was the precursor of much
to come. Without Duchamp's readymade urinal, a
great many things are difficult to conceive of,
from Robert Rauschenberg's "combines" of the
1950s such as Monogram (an Angora goat girdled
with a tire atop a canvas), to Andy Warhol's
"Oxidation Paintings" of the late 1970s (made by
urinating on a copper surface). The course taken
by conceptual and minimalist art movements is
equally difficult to imagine without Duchamp's
cosa mentale, just as are the brilliant and
irreverent hijinks of Maurizio Cattelan (such as
his stealing an exhibit from a gallery in
Amsterdam and presenting it as his own). But,
along the way, something had gone missing: the
readymade urinal itself.

Duchamp's iconic invention left the world as
strangely as it had entered it. It simply
disappeared. The exact circumstances remain a
mystery, but in all probability the original was
discarded as a urinal-a fitting, and, for a
urinal, noble death. It is here that the chain of
events leading to the arrest of a French seed
merchant began to tighten. As interest in the
work grew despite its disappearance, Duchamp
responded with a surprising decision: he
authorized a series of "replicas," first in 1950
for an exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery, and
ending with an edition of eight that he put up
for sale.

When Pierre Pinoncelli walked into a white room
in Nîmes in 1993, he knew he was not in the
bathroom; he knew the urinal in front of him was
marked as Duchamp's Fountain, and he also knew it
was not the Fountain refused by the Independents
in 1917. Pinoncelli was not only a seed merchant;
he was also an artist. He revered Duchamp and his
reverence fueled his disappointment with
Duchamp's decision to replicate the original
readymade. For him, in reissuing and reproducing
Fountain-in merchandising and franchising
it-Duchamp had betrayed it. Feeling that the
punishment should fit the crime, Pinoncelli took
matters into his own hands. He peed into the
false idol, and before the guards could overpower
him, he produced a small hammer from his pocket
and gave the urinal a single sound whack.

The French courts saw this incident in relatively
straightforward fashion. For them, Pinoncelli had
vandalized the property of the state-and the
property he vandalized was particularly valuable.
For his part, Pinoncelli found the charges
"narrow-minded." When Pinoncelli was given the
occasion to explain his act in court, he pointed
out that what he had attacked was a fake, was not
Duchamp's urinal-or R. Mutt's or J. L. Mott's. It
was not the original it pretended to be (an
ironic position for a work that prided itself on
its lack of originality). When asked about his
first gesture, Pinoncelli offered a laconic (and
Scholastic) explanation: "The invitation to
urinate is offered ipso facto by the object
(L'appel à l'urine est en effet contenu ipso
facto)." Of his other act, he said, "My hammer
blow was that of the auctioneer's gavel coming
down on a new work of art." When the prosecution
accused him of "vandalism," he was indignant,
claiming that, on the contrary, he had added
value to the work. The other "fakes" were
faceless replicas, but this one now had a history
and was thus immeasurably more valuable than
before. Pinoncelli declared that he would welcome
remuneration from the French state but did not
require it. The defense rested.

The French government was not amused and
convicted Pinoncelli of "damaging a monument or
object of public utility." The formula contained
more irony than its legislators could have ever
suspected as it managed to touch upon both sides
of the readymade's singular being: both its
iconic, monumental aspect-the part worth millions
of francs-and the "public utility" for which the
object had first been designed. (I assume that if
I am ever caught by the French authorities
damaging a urinal-let me stress for legal reasons
that this is in no way my intention-my charge
will be: "damaging an object of public utility.")
Pinoncelli was ordered to pay a hefty fine and
placed on probation. He refused to pay and a
group calling themselves "The Friends of Pierre
Pinoncelli" stepped forward on his behalf to
raise the necessary funds. In the meantime,
Pinoncelli got back to work.

This work had long ceased to be that of a seed
merchant. Pinoncelli had definitively dedicated
himself to "happenings." Combatting the society
of the spectacle required that he advance on
numerous fronts. In 1967, he had squirted the
Minister of Culture and national icon André
Malraux with red paint. Changing weapons, in 1975
he held up a bank in Nice with a sawed-off
shotgun, asking for, and escaping with, ten
francs (he said he was going to just ask for one
franc, but the inflation of the period was so
high that he changed his mind at the last
minute). Inspired not only by Guy Debord but also
the Cynic philosopher Diogenes, Pinoncelli
continued his activities. It is said that for a
time Diogenes lived naked in a barrel. In Lyons,
Pinoncelli took up and then let fall the toga of
the Greek philosopher. He soon grew tired of the
barrel and stood next to it until he was arrested
for exhibitionism. He continued to plan new
happenings in his studio in Saint-Remy (his
neighbor complained to the local authorities
after he painted a mural on his wall, clearly
visible from her garden, of Mickey Mouse giving
her the finger). When Christmas time came, he
stood outside an elegant department store in Nice
dressed as Santa Claus. As happy children massed
round him, he opened his sack of toys, emptied
them on the sidewalk, and began to smash them to
bits, declaiming a lesson all the while to the
spectacle-loving children about the
commercialization of affection. (Moments later,
the tide of public opinion turned, and
Pinoncelli, still dressed as Santa, was chased
down Nice's streets by a group of irate
capitalist parents, a spectacle if French society
ever saw one). Most radically, in Cali, Colombia,
in 2002 Pinoncelli chopped off the end of his
left pinky finger with an axe to protest the
violence tearing the country apart (his finger
tip is in the Cali Museum of Art).

But alongside all this iconoclastic activity,
Pinoncelli's obsession remained Duchamp's
readymade urinal-a "holy grail," as he called it
on one occasion, "a great white whale" as he
called it on another. And so with Ahabian
single-mindedness, he continued to pursue his
quarry. On 4 January 2006, Pinoncelli visited
Paris's Museum of Modern Art in the Pompidou
Center. The exhibition was a crowded one. He
walked up to Fountain (if it could speak, it
would have screamed at his approach) and slid
into the dark waters of recidivism.

After a modified repeat performance-he only hit
it with a hammer this time-the French government
was even less amused than it had been the first
time around. The director of the museum, Alfred
Pacquement, denounced Pinoncelli as a "vandal"
and claimed his trespass was "just as serious" as
Laszlo Toth's 1972 attack on Michelangelo's
Pietà. Pinoncelli's arguments remained the same
as before, and he lost in the same fashion, this
time forced to pay 200,000 euros in "moral
damages" to the French state (calculated as a
percentage of the work's total worth) and, more
curiously, an additional 14,352 euros for
material damages. Pinoncelli continues to claim
that, once more, his act of "creative
destruction" has increased the worth of the work
and has stated that if the French authorities
remained blind to this fact, the English need
not. In an article published, appropriately
enough, in The Independent, Pinoncelli told John
Lichfield that he hoped the directors of Tate
Modern would offer to exchange their Fountain for
the French one. He also announced that he was

What is today's student of art to make of such a
series of events? Perhaps Pinoncelli is a
monomaniacal, toy-smashing, self-mutilating
vandal. Perhaps he is an artist. Perhaps he is
both. How are we then to understand his repeat
attacks on Duchamp's not-so-singular Fountain?
The question is difficult because of the
spectacular status of the object in question. Two
years after the Independents show, Duchamp
produced a work entitled L.H.O.O.Q.-this time
under the pseudonym Rrose Sélavy. L.H.O.O.Q. was
a reproduction of Leonardo's Mona Lisa with a
handlebar mustache and pointed beard painted on
it, and with its title written at the bottom.
When spoken aloud, L.H.O.O.Q. becomes the French
sentence, "Elle a chaud au cul," "She's horny."
Asked in an interview, "What is a readymade,"
Duchamp's first response was to laugh. When this
laughter subsided, he gave an example: Mutt's
Fountain. Asked to expand upon the matter, he
turned to other possibilities for readymades. He
noted that there was the "assisted readymade"
(ready-made aidé), and gave as an example his
mistreated Mona Lisa. And then he offered a final
variation, what he called a "reciprocal
readymade" (readymade réciproque). He said that
this would be a work of art used as an everyday,
readymade object, such as "using a Rembrandt as
an ironing board." The readymade took an everyday
mass-produced object and treated it as art. The
assisted readymade took a mass-produced
reproduction of a work of art and made it into a
unique commentary on that work. The reciprocal
readymade took a unique work of art and treated
it like a mass-produced utilitarian object.

I mention this because it seems that the best way
to understand Pinoncelli's acts is in Duchamp's
terms: as part of the natural history of the
readymade. One might claim that by being
reproduced for commercial purposes, Duchamp's
fountains had lost their readymade authenticity,
their unique identity, and that what Pinoncelli
did was to dynamically infuse one of the replicas
with just this. Thanks to Duchamp's commercial
reproductions, the work had descended to the
level of the first unmade readymade; Pinoncelli
arguably returned it to the level of a readymade.
Might we not also see Pinoncelli's acts as an
assisted readymade-one in much need of aid? In
L.H.O.O.Q., Duchamp not only offered a radical
interpretation for the enigmatic smile
(lascivity), he drew a mocking moustache and
beard around its lips. But, of course, it was not
the actual Mona Lisa, not the singular and
irreplaceable Mona Lisa, that Duchamp playfully
defaced, but a readymade reproduction of that
work. Which is precisely what Pinoncelli did to
Duchamp's Fountain-he did not deface the
original; he defaced a reproduction, albeit a
valuable one. And, finally, did Pinoncelli not go
a step farther than Duchamp in effectively
creating a reciprocal readymade? He did not take
a Rembrandt and use it as an ironing board, but
he did take a work of art-worth as much as a
Rembrandt-and used it as an object of everyday
utility-as a urinal-which, aptly enough, it was.
Pinoncelli remade a readymade that at the same
moment, depending on one's viewpoint, was also an
assisted readymade and a reciprocal readymade. An
artistic trifecta.

1 For more on Laszlo Toth's acts, see Steven
Goss, "A Partial Guide to the Tools of Art
Vandalism," available here.

2 There is debate as to whether Mott was the
producer or distributor of the urinal, as
historians have been unable to find a urinal in
Mott's product catalogue that matches the urinal
shown in Stieglitz's photograph. The urinal may
have been produced by a manufacturer that
distributed its wares through Mott.

Leland de la Durantaye is assistant professor in
the Department of English and American Literature
and Language at Harvard University. Alongside of
his scholarly work, he has written for the Boston
Globe, Harvard Review, Rain Taxi, Bookforum, and
the Village Voice. His book, Style is Matter: The
Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov, was published by
Cornell University Press in 2007.

Cabinet! © 2007


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